Summer 2020: Old Testament Heroes
August 22, 2020
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: 1 Samuel 3:1-18
All summer we’ve been dipping into the stories of ancient Israel and meeting some of the defining characters of the Old Testament. This morning we’re turning our attention to the priest Eli. Eli’s family had long been among those honored to care for the sacred Ark of the Covenant. Now he and his sons oversee the shrine at Shiloh, a town about twenty miles north of Jerusalem and the closest thing ancient Israel had to a capital. When we catch up with Eli he’s old, nearly blind, and aware his sons’ lack of respect for God, the shrine, the traditions or the people who came to worship would cost the family their position.
Our reading this morning comes from 1 Samuel 3:1-18. Most Bibles title this passage “The Call of Samuel” or something similar. And when we read it we usually focus on the young boy. Today, as I read it, I want you to focus on the old, blind priest. During the musical interlude, consider what Eli might have been feeling as he mentors Samuel through this intense spiritual experience.
Eli’s given his entire life to this shrine and to caring for the Ark, as had his father before him, and his father before that. The shrine was the source of the family’s wealth. It was the source of their prestige. It was the source of their power. And now his sons have ruined it. They’ve replaced the shrine’s call to holiness with a culture of corruption – stealing offerings, sexually assaulting women and generally being “scoundrels with no regard for the Lord.” Now Eli’s family, so honored by God to be given stewardship of the Ark, was to be cut off, not just from the shrine but from the entire promise of God to Israel. Samuel’s vision contains no news for Eli. He knows his sins. He knows the sins of his sons. He knows the boy Samuel was sent to replace him, to replace his family, to deny his legacy.
How easy would it have been for Eli to have shunned Samuel or tried to corrupt him or battered him with frustration and anger. Yet, in the middle of the night, as Samuel hears the voice of God, Eli is there to teach him to listen, to help him process the disturbing information and grow into a powerful, faithful leader.
Lets be clear. I don’t think Eli was a very good priest. Certainly the bible blames him, in part, for the sins of his sons and suggests he was complicit in their corruption. But despite his sins, Eli’s heart never hardens. He cares for Samuel. He cares for the Ark. He cares for the traditions of the shrine. He cares for those who come to worship. His heart remains open. Despite his sins, God remains able to work in him and through him.
On Thursday night at the Columbiana church Lekeila, a student at YSU and a recent graduate of Youngstown High School gave a wonderful presentation on the history of race in the United States. Through the program Sojourn to the Past, Lekeila has immersed herself in this dark side of the American Story; her story as a young African-American woman; our story as European-Americans. After the murder of George Floyd she and her fellow students developed this presentation to share all they’d learned. When she’s not been at work or in class, Lekeila has spent most of her summer traveling the largely white Youngstown suburbs – Canfield, Poland, Boardman, Austintown, Columbiana – teaching American history to older white folks, often facing direct racism from the very people who have invited her to speak.
I got a hard, but wonderful, history lesson from Lekeila, but more importantly I got a lesson in heart. A couple years ago, at another HUB event, Bishop Joseph MacNeal, a Youngstown pastor who works closely with our mission partner Needles’ Eye, talked about growing up and hating white people. I didn’t get it then. Following Lekeila’s presentation I got it – and what Lekeila shared is only the tip of the iceberg of what she knows, what she’s experienced. She has every right, as a young, African-American woman, to be cynical and angry, to have let the hate and the hurt work her heart into stone. Yet as she’d faced the sins of our nation, the pain of her people, she’d been transformed. Her pride has grown, but her heart has softened. She’s found healing and seeks to help us soften our hearts, to experience healing too.
One day a gentile woman cries out to Jesus as he walks along the street. “Have mercy on me,” she calls. “Please heal my daughter.” But Jesus ignores her. Yet like Hannah, Samuel’s mother, like Lekeila when she was met by armed white men when accepting a speaking invitation in Canfield, she refused to be ignored. Irritated, Jesus tells her to go away. “I came only to heal Jewish people,” he tells her. But still she persists, arguing with Jesus, declaring herself worthy, redirecting his understanding, until he praises her faith and heals her daughter.
The Bible uses the same language to describe the spiritual corruption of Eli’s sons as it uses to describe the rigidness of Pharaoh and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Their hearts are hardened. God can’t work in them, or through them. Jesus, defined by love, has a soft heart. He allows the gentile woman to change him, opening the path of salvation to our ancestors and to us. Eli’s heart never hardens, opening the path of salvation to a corrupt Israel. As she takes pride in who she is and fights for her future, Lekeila’s heart remains soft, creating space for her neighbors to heal and grow.
Hard hearts are easy. Anger and cynicism, our need to enforce rules, maintain control, hew to dogma, our fear of change, the desire to preserve our pride all turn hearts of flesh into hearts of stone. Soft hearts are born of love, of humility, of faith in a God who can and does work through us despite of our sins. Soft hearts open the way to repentance, renewal and salvation. Let us pray to our Savior that by instilling his love in us he can give us new hearts, hearts of flesh, so we, and our world, can heal.